Reclaiming our city's footpaths for pedestrians by empowering residents and goading local officials to act

Is there not enough money, or is political will lacking? A combination of both appears to be depriving Chennai pedestrians of their right to walk.

The expenditure pattern of the Chennai Corporation on pedestrian facilities in comparison to black-topped and concrete roads as well as massive city development plans, confirms what is true for most Indian cities – walkers have little influence and get meagre support.

For many years, the civic body has been pursuing, with a lot of encouragement from the traffic police, the policy of ‘road widening.’ This is shorthand for removal of pedestrian space and its handover to an ever-increasing population of private vehicles.

That this logic flies in the face of accepted planning principles, and the National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), as well as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, seems to matter little. The NUTP is in place to guide urban development endeavours of States, if they wish to tap into the Centre’s expertise and crucially, funding. Advocating a pedestrian-empowering model, the policy says, “At present, road space gets allocated to whichever vehicle occupies it first. The focus is, therefore, the vehicle and not people. The result is that a bus carrying 40 people is allocated only two and a half times the road space that is allocated to a car carrying only one or two persons.”

In Chennai, when it comes to capital expenditure, the Corporation budget includes special grants available under the non-lapsable Tamil Nadu Urban Road Infrastructure Fund. In 2012-13, that stood at Rs. 55 crore and the estimate for 2013-14 is Rs. 70 crore. The fund provides for ‘improvement, renovation, relaying of roads in the Urban Local Bodies including related infrastructure such as roads, pedestrian footpaths, storm water drains, signage, provision for ducting, street furniture, productive structures and cross drainage structures.’

This is besides multiple expenditure heads for roads. There is also a massive fund of Rs. 535 crore earmarked as a State government grant under the Chennai Mega City Development Mission for the current year, up from Rs. 200 crore for last year.

How much of all this money will go towards the creation and repair of pedestrian facilities, and to expand Chennai’s stagnating public transport, which depends heavily on walking access?

Since The Hindu’s ‘Right to Walk’ campaign began, the Chennai Corporation has announced the opposite of road widening – promising to reduce vehicular carriageway and extend footpaths. This prospect may appear alarming to some, since there are no concomitant moves, such as introduction of escalating parking fees, expansion of bus and train systems and encouragement given to cycling to reduce vehicle dependence. What is more relevant, however, is that even available road space is poorly utilised.

On many roads in Chennai, at least six feet of margin space is virtually ‘dead’ as it cannot be used by pedestrians or vehicles. Rains increase the amount of inaccessible space. Moreover, permanent commercial encroachments or politically influential individuals have usurped these margins on several roads.

The way forward, therefore, would be to earmark a standardised walking area, create good low-cost walking surfaces, and fence footpaths with guard rails. This will automatically lead to wider pavements. Also, such a determined effort will be crucial, as the city prepares for increased use of public transport – with a combination of Metro, suburban rail, MRTS, buses and feeder vehicles.

It may be necessary to have marginally wider roads along some bottleneck points, as the Chennai Corporation council has been advocating, along with transfer of development rights to property owners who part with roadside land. But the mainstream policy cannot be one of marginalised pedestrians being forced to give up their right to walk, subsidising those who assume the privilege of unrestricted use of private vehicles.

A compromise would be to charge car and other private vehicle users, special fees both for access and for fuel, with the funds going only towards better footpaths and more buses and trains. Bangalore adopted such a policy for its Metro Phase I funding. Far from doing that, the latest Chennai Corporation budget indicates that the revenue from parking fees, a meagre Rs. 1 crore last year, is estimated to not increase at all during the present year, in spite of the rising vehicle population.

Talk Back

We invite readers to participate in this campaign. You can email pictures of bad pavements (size not more than 1.5 MB) to myright@thehindu.co.in

Please send a picture of yourself.

In the email, please give your name, contact information, location of the pavement, description of the issue and action required.

Your pictures will be posted on www.facebook.com/chennaicentral and will also be considered for publication in the newspaper.

Website: http://thne.ws/mychennai

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